Dairy farmers in Ngoma District have decried the milk prices in the area, saying it is not commensurate to the effort they put in the farming activities.
Farmers say a litre of milk costs Rwf100, which they argue is too little compared to what they spend on taking care of the animals, let alone facilitating them to provide for their families.
John Habarugira, a farmer in Rukira Sector, said the farmers do not benefit from government programmes and have not yet been supported to form cooperatives like was the case with bananas farmers in that area. "Bananas farmers were supported by authorities to form cooperatives and they earn a lot from their trade, but dairy farmers have been neglected," he said.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, milk production has doubled in the Eastern Province, especially in Ngoma District. However, farmers complain little value has been given to dairy farming, saying even banana beer (urwagwa) costs more than milk. In Rukira Sector, 98 per cent of residents depend on cattle to earn a living.
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Speaking to The New Times, the farmers said they struggle to take care of their livestock, but almost get nothing in return. Habarugira said the situation contradicts government's drive for people to rear dairy cows to improve their livelihood.
He added that historically, cattle were a reliable source of income, but this is not the case in Ngoma District as they are almost starving because milk brings in very little. "A five-litre gallon of milk goes for just Rwf500 compared to that of banana beer that goes for Rwf1,500. How can I sustain my family of seven people with such little money?" Habarugira asked.
Jean Batiste Karasira, another dairy farmer said the situation has affected many residents and could derail the Girinka programme, a cattle-stocking initiative introduced by government five years ago. "We walk for two hours to the trading centre where the milk is sold for peanuts. We cannot refuse the little money since we have nothing else to do," he said, before adding; "we really need a reliable market for our milk."
Karasira said there is no milk collection centre with cooling facilities in the area as they do not have electricity in most of the rural areas of the district. Most of the farmers interviewed said though they raised the issue with the district authorities, nothing has been done so far. They appealed to Rwanda Agricultural Board to help them form a cooperative through which they can market their milk at a reasonable price.
Dr. Michel Ngarambe, the coordinator of livestock infrastructure support programme in the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry said only farmers organised under cooperatives can be given milk collection centres, according to government policy. Ngarambe said it is the responsibility of mayors to inform them where there is a lot of milk so they can support the farmers and set up collection centres.
He added that districts are also charged with helping organise people into cooperatives through local branches of the Rwanda Cooperatives Agency. "We encourage farmers to approach local RCA officials to help them set up cooperatives, instead of waiting for the officials to look for them," he said.
He attributed the low milk prices in Ngoma to absence of cooperatives that would bargain for better prices. A litre of milk is sold at between Rwf175 and Rwf220 for those who are organised in cooperatives.
"We recognise all their effort for looking after their cows, but they have to understand the importance of being in cooperatives," Ngarambe said.
The ministry has set up 96 milk collection centres across the country, and 16 of these are in the Eastern Province, according to Ngarambe.
When contacted however, Aphrodise Nambaje, the Ngoma District Mayor, accused the same farmers of refusing to form cooperatives.
There is one milk collection centre in the whole of Ngoma district and this is located in Kibungo town, and this cannot serve all farmers.
Nambaje noted that funds have been secured to build another collection centre, as part of the district's five-year development plan for 2013-2018.